Fully Self Driving Cars by next year?

Tesla S, 3, X, Y

Elon Musk has recently promised to send an ‘over-the-air’ software update that will turn hundreds of thousands of Tesla vehicles into fully automated, self-driving cars. Many of the vehicles are already theoretically able to do this, having been spec’ed with the appropriate hardware.

Many of today’s vehicles are already equipped with limited self-driving abilities. They seem to work pretty well in many basic situations such as motorway driving, but Tesla’s new mode will allow fully self-driven cars even in chaotic city environments. That means interpreting stop signs and traffic lights, making tight turns, navigating stop-and-go urban traffic and avoiding other obstacles such as electric scooters popping onto the roadway from the kerb just as the traffic lights ahead turn orange.

Are we ready for this? The Tesla upgrade will forgo the use of lidar (laser-based radar). Musk says he wants Tesla’s system to use a combination of cameras and radar sensors that triangulate a field of vision, similar to human eyesight.  Hopefully, it will be better than human eyesight as that is notoriously hopeless, considering the number of people who pull out in front of trucks!

Thanks to a mate of mine who gets to drive new BMWs as company cars, this week I tried out their self-driving system first hand. Well technically it’s not a self-driving mode, they call it ‘lane departure warning with steering assistance’ or something like that, but when it’s combined with radar-controlled cruise control etc, it can drive itself for 15 to 20 seconds with your hands off the wheel. And even for very long distances if you keep your fingertips or even your knees touching the wheel so the capacitors can sense you are still alive. My buddy once drove one of his BMWs from Ellerslie to Orewa completely hands-free, using the knee touching method only; so it works.

The car in question, a 2019 X3 M40D had been spec’ed with all the top of the line gubbins, and there is some pretty impressive safety-oriented stuff in there. Even a little light that tells you when you are following too close. These are the sorts of things that might actually make a difference to JAG’s appalling road death rate.

2019 BMW X3 M40D. Yes please, I promise I’ll be good.

We tested the X3 through the Onewa Rd/Lake Rd intersection in Northcote using the system, fully hands-free, not even a knee was involved. This intersection is pretty interesting as there is yellow cross-hatching all over it and the citybound lane jinks to the left in the middle of the intersection. This sort of thing could cause a self-driving car to have a conniption, as the chance of a head-on could be reasonably high. The BMW handled it most admirably.

The only thing I found that might put a spanner in the works was the ability to read the speed signs etc. At one point I was in a 30 km/h roadwork zone in a 50 km/h area (not in lazy driver mode) and, for some reason, the car had somehow decided that the area actually had a 60 km/h limit. The system in that particular model is slightly older technology though, and I understand the new BMW 3 series lifts the bar quite a bit higher.

Another aspect I was impressed with was the radar cruise feature. I also tried this on my recent European holiday on the amazing motorways in Croatia. You can set your speed; the cruise control will keep you at a safe distance from the car ahead until your lane is free and then take you back up to your set speed. I had mine set on 152km/h and I just let the car do the thinking for a while just to see if it worked, and it was pretty amazing. The only issue I had was that if I had it set on the longest (normal and legal) following distance, people kept pulling into the space ahead causing the car to slow quickly. This was solved by setting it for a closer following distance so, although technically illegally close, it was much safer and more relaxing.

Of course, Elon Musk can say whatever he likes about his cars’ self-driving programmes as there is currently very little real legislation in place. The industry is largely self-regulated and there are few to no provisions for enforcement. Apparently though, the company that supplies part of the system for his cars has recently pulled out and won’t supply him because he refuses to stop calling it ‘Autopilot’.

Personally, I think this is all a bit of a marketing ploy for Musk. About a day after he made this announcement, he put up the price for his self-driving hardware.

So are we ready for autonomous vehicles yet? I would suggest the answer would be ‘No Way’; but they are coming, so eventually all the laws etc will have to be sorted out. I do however imagine that, if Musk does suddenly release half a million autonomous Teslas onto the roads without them being 100% foolproof, the resulting chaos could very well result in the sort of knee-jerk, ban everything legislation that we have seen recently in little ole NZ.

But for now, as I can’t afford a new BMW, when I need to give my arms a rest, I’ll just have to rely on the old proven, steer with your knees technique that my Dad perfected.